Callindra returned to the room just in time to find Tryst setting out breakfast. Porridge and fruit with fresh baked bread, humble fare but filling and flavorful.
“Good, you’re back.” He said in greeting, “Come, break your fast and we will speak of the day to come. We will leave by the postern gate under my banner. Unless there is any reason to expect delay it should take us a fortnight to reach the Cathedral. Once there we will meet the Biscop and he will give us his blessing and the particulars of our mission.”
She set to with a will having worked up an appetite with her morning practice. “What are the travel conditions like around here?”
“Probably much the same as when you arrived.” Said Cronos, giving her a confused look.
“Yeah. I suppose.” She said around a mouthful of bread.
“The Lords do a fairly good job of keeping the road free of bandits and the like. Much of the upkeep of the surface itself is undertaken by locals who wish merchants to be able to easily pass by their farms and holdings.” Said Tryst, “I do not know about travel to the North and West but I would imagine the main trade route between the Capitol and Holding as large as Duke Gladthorne’s would be well protected and properly maintained.”
“Now all we have to worry about is making a graceful exit from this city.” Said Vilhylm, “I gather I’m not the only one who is leaving ahead of some… unwanted attention?” He looked pointedly at Callindra.
“When we are finished here we can leave by the postern gate. It should not be much of a challenge, we will be under my banner.” Tryst said. “The monks here have been kind enough to lend me horses for those of you who do not own one.”
True to his word, Tryst led his small group of warriors through the quiet morning streets and out the west gate without incident. Once on the road, Callindra discovered she had little skill with and less love for horse travel. The animal seemed to lurch in an ungainly fashion; she was forced to grip its wide barrel with her legs to keep her seat.
She was sure her inner thighs would be rubbed raw by the time they reached their destination. Her skirt was far too short to offer any protection and straddling the animal revealed a startling amount of leg. Too much even for the demands of her minimal modesty.
When they stopped for the midday meal, she gladly dismounted and stiffly stretched sore muscles. When she looked up she could see Vilhylm eyeing her horse with a questioning look on his face.
“What?” She said irritably rubbing her sore backside.
“I think your stirrups are a little too long.” He said, reaching out to adjust the buckles. “That should help a bit. I don’t think those priests are very familiar with riding further than the market or perhaps out to some of the outlying farms.”
Callindra stared at him for a moment, and then nodded in appreciation. “Thanks, I don’t know much about horses.”
“I’ve been living on the road for a long time. You pick up some things out of necessity.” He said, “You need to take the saddle off and walk him a bit before you water him, otherwise he might strain a muscle in the afternoon.”
Vilhylm showed her the basics of caring for the animal before they took some time to toast some bread and cheese over a small fire. Accompanied by a savory sausage and some wrinkled apples it made a good lunch.
They had saddled up and ridden for about an hour, thanks to Vilhylm’s modifications to her stirrup length a much more comfortable hour, when a thin column of smoke became visible ahead.
“That looks too large to be a campfire.” Said Callindra.
“Too dark, there’s cloth and leather burning in that fire.” Said Vilhylm, looking critically at the smoke, “I think we should prepare for trouble.” He paused and pulled a strangely carved mask from inside his cloak. Callindra could see several others in large pockets before his cloak covered them again.
Tryst was tightening the straps on his armor and Cronos was muttering an arcane incantation. Callindra shrugged and loosened Brightfang in his sheath.
“We should leave the horses here, out of danger.” Tryst said, “Unless any of you prefer to fight from horseback?”
They tied their animals to pickets in a small meadow a short distance from the road and continued on foot. Once they had topped a small rise, Callindra could see a scene of destruction displayed out in front of her. A small caravan lay in disarray, some wagons were burning, some turned on their sides, crates were smashed open and corpses lay strewn about.
Tryst rushed forward, checking the bodies for any signs of life. Callindra was appalled by the carnage; she had never imagined a human body could contain so much blood. Cronos didn’t even seem to notice the dead, walking past a caravan driver with his head nearly hacked off without batting an eyelash. Vilhylm plucked an arrow shaft from one of the caravans and examined it.
“Looks like Kobolds, not a human raiding party. Isn’t it strange for them to be this far south?” He said, “I thought they were mostly contained in the mountains and foothills.”
“They did a thorough job here.” Tryst said sadly, “No survivors.”
Callindra turned away from the carnage, towards the wooded hills. A light gust of wind moved the branches of the trees and she saw the outlines of small shapes. “Ware the hills!” Was all she managed before black fletched arrows filled the air.
Arrows struck the thick leather of her armor; others struck the caravans behind and the ground around her. With a steely rustle, she drew Brightfang from his sheath and whirled him in a complex series of arcs, harnessing the Weave and releasing a blast of wind that scattered the rest of the incoming shafts off course. The creatures ran from the cover of the trees, brandishing mostly clubs and rusted daggers, Callindra smiled and ran to meet their charge.
She glided through the incoming creatures, Brightfang sliding beneath the clumsy defense the first attempted and severing its arm. Adrenaline raged through her veins and her training took over. Callindra sidestepped an inept strike and lashed out, opening a terrible gash across the green skinned monster’s chest.
She could see Vilhylm’s black cloaked form slam into the charging Kobold’s and glanced in shock. The wooden mask on his face seemed to move as though it was part of his skin. His arms and shoulders were massively muscled and he used his hands as well as his feet to run and then pounce on one of the creatures with savage force.
“On your back!” Shouted Cronos, and Callindra could feel him close behind her. Thankful that she wouldn’t need to worry about an attack from behind, she focused on the foes in front.
The battle was short and brutal, the half-sized creatures had not the skills or the weapons to stand against their better trained and armed opponents. Although it seemed to last for hours, the fight took no more than minutes, leaving Callindra and her companions standing over their fallen foes, breathing heavily and bleeding from minor wounds.
“Is anyone badly hurt?” Tryst looked them over, concern evident on his face.
“I’m fine. I’ve had a lot worse.” Said Vilhylm, shrugging off any injuries he might be hiding under his black cloak.
“I have wounds that need dressing, but nothing serious.” Callindra said, gesturing to a particularly deep cut on her thigh with a wince. The adrenaline was wearing off and the pain of her injuries was beginning to surface.
“What do you think brought these monsters so far out of their normal range?” She looked around at the dead Kobolds and then at the dark blood that still clung to her sword blade and drew a shuddering breath, trying to calm her nerves.
“I don’t know, but it bodes ill.” Said Cronos, displaying more knowledge of the world than one so young normally would. “Likely it’s related to something worse inhabiting their caves.”
Callindra cleaned Brightfang on the canvas of one of the caravans, careful not to leave any of the acrid blood on the steel and tried to stop her hands from shaking. The others were still discussing the portent of the Kobolds presence but she couldn’t hear them anymore. How could anyone treat killing so casually? The reality of having just taken the lives of so many living beings rocked her to the core.
A hand fell on her shoulder, jolting her back to herself. “Are you OK Callindra?” Tryst asked.
“I just…” She took a deep breath, “That was my first battle. The first time I ever killed with my sword. It was not as I had imagined.”
“When it gets easier is when you should question yourself.” He said with a sad smile, “I am conflicted any time I’m forced to raise my hammer to do violence upon another. That hesitation has nearly cost me my life more than once, but that risk is worth the preservation of my humanity.”
“I fear we may not have the luxury of hesitation if fell things are invading the world of men.” Vilhylm said, walking over to where they sat. “The lives of many may well depend on our swift and decisive action.”
“I will always strive to uphold the First Oath my master taught me.” Callindra said, “Battle shall always be my last resort. My honor belongs to those weaker than myself. The edge of my sword stands against the Unlawful. Always seek peace, equilibrium in the world mirroring the balance of my blade. The wind blows impartially on sea and wildfire, on forest and mountain, bringing the seasons to pass. I am as the wind.”
“Those are flowery words girl, but try and apply that when facing a mob of angry villagers who blame you for something that’s gone wrong.” Sneered Cronos, “Besides, don’t you think these are weaker than you?” He said, kicking one of the Kobold corpses.
“There’s nothing wrong with having ideals as long as you don’t let them get you killed.” Said Vilhylm.
“I have been the weakest before; I know what it’s like on the bottom. None of you have any idea what it’s like to be a girl working in a Lord’s Holding.” Callindra retorted, “I won’t abuse what I have been given, nor will I allow others to do so if it’s within my power to stop them. These creatures slaughtered an innocent caravan not to mention they attacked us without provocation, their actions forfeit the peace of the First Oath.”
Cronos gave her a critical look, “Just don’t put your ideas about justice before my life; I don’t share your ridiculous optimism about the world.” He spun on his heel and walked back towards where the horses were tethered.
Vilhylm looked after his retreating form, “I’ve been here before Callindra and I’ve been where you are also. I admire your convictions. I wish I still shared them.”
“Someone has to; otherwise what’s the point of being alive?” She sheathed Brightfang with practiced ease.
“I trust you won’t turn up your nose at the spoils of battle?” He asked holding out a small pouch, “Those Kobolds had a bit of silver on them. It’s not much but we all have needs. That armor of yours will need to be repaired after today at very least.”
She took the pouch and held it in her hand. “This was likely the property of these caravan drivers recently. It probably belongs to their families.”
“There’s no way of knowing that now.” Vilhylm said, “If you want to survive you are going to have to think of yourself eventually. It’s impossible to always put others first Callindra.”
“I will accept this, but there are more important things than money.” Callindra said, tying the pouch to her belt, “I fought back to back with Cronos today. He treated me like an equal on the battlefield, you all did. I don’t know if I can explain what that means to me other than to say I will lay down my life to protect you.”
“Well said Callindra, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” Tryst said with a wry smile.